Land restitution coverage leads to threats in Colombia

Bogotá, Colombia, May 8, 2013–A shadowy group that claims to oppose land restitution efforts in Colombia has told eight journalists who cover the issue to leave the northern city of Valledupar or be killed, according to CPJ interviews and news reports.

In a pamphlet dated May 5 and distributed to news outlets in Valledupar the next day, an organization calling itself the Anti-land Restitution Group said the reporters had 24 hours to leave the city or they would become targets. “If you continue sticking your noses into cases of land restitution and victims, you will be the next victims,” says the pamphlet, which includes the image of an automatic weapon. “This is the first and last warning that will be issued.”

The threatened journalists are based in Valledupar, capital of Cesar province, and work for local and national TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers. All of them have been covering the issue of land grabs that took place during Colombia’s ongoing civil conflict as well as recent efforts by the national government to return the stolen properties to their rightful owners.

“The individuals behind this deplorable pamphlet are out to protect their personal interests by silencing news coverage,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, from New York. “By safeguarding these journalists and apprehending those behind the threats, authorities will be standing up for their citizens’ right to information on this important issue.”

The eight journalists met Tuesday with police and Interior Ministry officials who promised to provide them with security. “They have no need to flee Valledupar because we are guaranteeing their security as well as the right to do their jobs,” said Col. Juan Pablo Guerrero, police commander in Cesar, according to press reports.

Katia Ospino, a journalist for the Bogotá TV news program “Noticias Uno” who was among those threatened, told CPJ: “I will not be silenced. I will continue reporting on these issues. None of us has talked about leaving Valledupar.”

Marxist guerrillas, the right-wing paramilitaries who fought against them before disarming in the mid-2000s, and drug traffickers have all been blamed for stealing properties. These land grabs total an estimated 13 million acres and have caused the country to have one of the most inequitable rates of land distribution in Latin America, according to news reports.

In 2011, the Colombian government set up a land restitution office that has received more than 30,000 claims nationwide and has been carrying out high-profile ceremonies in northern Colombia in which properties have been returned to their rightful owners, according to Human Rights Watch. However, many land rights activists have been threatened and killed, according to news reports.

Authorities have little information about the Anti-land Restitution Group, which announced its formation last year. But one Valledupar journalist, who spoke to CPJ on the condition of anonymity, speculated that the pamphlet may be the work of local property owners who benefit from the land grabs and oppose the government’s restitution campaign.

Besides Ospino, the threatened journalists include: Herlency Gutiérrez  of Bogotá’s RCN Radio; Jaime José Daza of the Maravilla Stereo radio station in Valledupar; Damaris Rojas of the Al Día Valledupar newspaper; Renier Asprilla of the Barranquilla daily El Heraldo; Óscar Arzuaga  of Radio Guatapuri in Valledupar; Ubaldo Anaya Flórez of the Valledupar TV news program “Noticiero RPT;” and Martín Mendoza of Bogotá’s Caracol Televisión and the Valledupar newspaper El Pilón.

With 44 journalists killed for their work since 1992, Colombia has historically been one of the most dangerous places in the world for journalists, CPJ research shows. CPJ’s Impunity Index, released last week, found that the country’s record has recently improved as anti-press violence has slowed.